Utility regulators in Maine have voted to trim funding for a statewide program that pays for energy efficiency improvements in homes and businesses, from the $60 million state lawmakers said they were expecting to $22 million.
Efficiency Maine, an independent agency that underwrites a variety of programs designed to reduce energy consumption, gets money from several sources, including a surcharge on electric bills. The vote by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) on March 17 affects the amount of money that can be collected and spent on efficiency programs such as weatherization, heating system upgrades, and more efficient lighting.
The 2-1 vote was part of a rule-making followup to legislation passed in 2013. Flabbergasted lawmakers said their intent for a $60 million cap was clear, but regulators said they were simply following the letter of the law.
A clerical mistake in the bill as it left committee — the omission of the word “and” — may be to blame, according to a report in The Portland Press Herald.
The vote doesn’t affect current spending plans, but it if left uncorrected will be a blow. Efficiency Maine’s fiscal report for 2014 said the program had invested $36 million in efficiency upgrades last year that would save $192 million in long-term avoided energy costs. Benefits directly affected 261,000 participants last year.
Michael Stoddard, Efficiency Maine’s executive director, said by phone it was still up in the air exactly how the reduced funding would affect the agency’s program. If left as is, changes would kick in with the budget year that begins July 1, 2016
Lawmakers are dismayed, but PUC says the law is clear
“This decision by two members of the PUC makes absolutely no sense,” state Sen. Dawn Hill, a York Democrat, said in a written statement, according to the Press Herald. “Underfunding a program that has a proven track record of helping businesses and homeowners save money on their energy bills is a short-sighted decision.”
In a statement posted at its website, the Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental advocacy group, said the vote was a “surprising and unfortunate development” that would cost state residents as much as $265 million a year in missed savings.
The NRCM said the vote was part of a “very disturbing trend” that included an earlier PUC vote to reopen discussions on two previously approved wind farms in the state.
PUC spokesman Harry Lanphear said that commissioners in favor of the cutback were simply following the letter of the law.
“The law is completely clear and completely unambiguous as to how we do the calculation of the cap, and that was their decision,” he said by telephone. “The other side, some people would say that wasn’t the intent of the legislation, but the law that was passed, the law that went on the floor that was passed, was crystal clear. Our job is to implement the laws passed by the legislature and that’s what we’re doing.”
After the legislation was approved, lawmakers followed up with a letter to the PUC explaining their intent that efficiency spending be capped at $60 million. Lanphear said commissioners considered the letter, but in the end decided the law as written took precedence.
Electric rates won’t be going up as a result of the ruling, he said, and that current Efficiency Maine programs would not be affected.
Currently, the program adds about 78 cents a month to the average residential power bill. That would have increased to about $3.13 a month if the PUC had interpreted the law as legislators had apparently intended, The Press Herald said.